Before the sharks, the dinosaurs, the aliens, and the archaeology professors turned adventurers - before the 150+ producing credits, 50 directing credits, and 3 Academy Awards, before Steven Spielberg was Steven Spielberg, there was Duel.
In 1971, Steven Spielberg had been a nobody in the movie industry for nearly three years. In 1968, he was hired out of college to work for Universal's television department based on his 26 minute theatrical short, “Amblin'”. At the time, Spielberg was the youngest person to be hired on a long-term directing contract in the history of major Hollywood studios. And yet his first work was in television, directing minor episodes of Columbo, Night Gallery and a longer episode of an adventure mystery serial called Name of the Game that featuring a dystopic vision of Los Angeles in 2017.
When Spielberg was handed the Playboy magazine featuring Richard Matheson's short story, “Duel,” he knew he wanted to be a part of it. Matheson's work had already been featured in dozens of Twilight Zone episodes and he would eventually go on to write I Am Legend. Duel was everything that defined Richard Matheson. It was tight and clever, pitted Man against Machine, and it stretched his main character to the limits of anxiety. Steven Spielberg saw "Duel" and knew it was one part cat and mouse thriller, one part "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", the Twilight Zone episode Matheson was most famous for.
1971, the year that Spielberg got the green light to direct Duel as ABC's movie of the week, was an interesting year inside and outside of Hollywood. Inside Hollywood, thrillers (like Duel) were successful and critically acclaimed. Every major studio was on edge as the first VCRs were poised to hit the market and possibly ruin the movie industry forever.
Outside of Hollywood, the hippie movement was alive and strong as the American public clamored for an end to the Vietnam war, which David Mann, the main character in Duel, seems to reference via VoiceOver.
Shot in 13 days on a budget of less than half a million dollars, the film was a critical success. It was so well-liked that it was picked up for international release, and Spielberg went back to film 16 more minutes of chase scenes and swear words to pad out the length of the movie.
Duel, seen through the modern eye, is a triumph in sparse film making. In only about 10 different car shots, 6 speaking roles, and 3 recognizably different locations, Spielberg creates a nearly apocalyptic level of lonely open road. In premise and execution, it's very simple. David Mann enrages a Peterbilt truck driver after passing it on the highway, causing the driver to go to unfathomable lengths to murder him. It's man against machine almost literally, when the main character's last name is Mann, and the driver of the semi is never shown. The sparsely populated cafe and roadside gas stations only add to the feeling that David Mann and his red Plymouth Valiant are alone against this flammable oil truck monstrosity.
Seen through backwards facing lenses, it is easy to identify this as a Spielberg film. The classic dolly shots, depth of field and playful lighting is already in place. Every shot seems planned to show both character and plot, and the camera languishes in Dennis Weaver's face as he goes from bored, to paranoid, to anxious, and then to the brink of insanity. Two techniques that have become Spielbergian trademarks are present as well: The menacing truck gets closer in the side view mirror like a loose Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park, and David Mann looks up at the semi from the middle of the road in a picture of wonder and unabashed fear - some film bloggers have dubbed that gaze “The Spielberg Face,” and it appears in nearly all of his features.
Sometimes it feels like the simplicity of Duel is an answer to the "difficult" films of the late 60s. Spielberg, having grown up in the twilight of adventure serials and lavishly produced movie musicals, took his film courses while "New Hollywood" had taken the public's eyes and imaginations away from luxurious failures like Tora, Tora, Tora. With Duel, Spielberg seems to say (and his critics seemed to agree) that simplicity can trump spectacle.
The ten shots Spielberg uses and reuses to create mounting tension hit rhythmic beats. A close-up of Mann, driving, then a wide shot of his car, a wider shot of both cars, a shot of the truck in his mirror, both cars from above, then from below. These beats are hit precisely, broken up only to show the pace change. In some ways, it is an exercise in style.
Where the film falls short is no fault of Spielberg's. It's the source material and lack of production budget. The score is lacking, and then jarring when it decides to be heard. Mann's dialogue is repetitive. The VoiceOver, which isn't voiced by Dennis Weaver, is a crutch which Spielberg didn't need. It's a testament to his skill as a filmmaker at the helm of his first feature that the film could play silent, and the power of the images would still shine through.
The modern fan of Spielberg can easily obsess over some of the details. Snakes are villainized, like a prequel to Indiana Jones. The aforementioned shot of the truck in the side view mirror is like a retro-futurist homage to himself. The score plays two notes over and over, a la Jaws. And history buffs can theorize that the oil crisis in 1975 was predicted by this terrifying oil tanker that stops at nothing to murder.
It's comforting to know that Spielberg will always be Spielberg. Even on 1/50th the budget that he came to enjoy, he crafted an incredible entertainment with only two cars and a desert. Duel is a film made by a filmmaker just discovering his talent and it is truly a joy to watch.